Here, how the original boutique fitness class has evolved over the decades from leg warmers and jazz hands to Pitbull and planks.

By By Leslie Goldman
August 17, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock

Laura Kitzi is a fierce CrossFitter who has mastered handstand push-ups and ring muscle-ups. She can bang out a 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another 1-mile run in less than 45 minutes. She's also a Jazzercise instructor.

Yes, you read that right. Jazzercise, the workout that was all the rage in the '80s, is still around. Not only that, it's reinvented itself as a hardcore dance- and strength-based routine that purports to rival the trendiest boutique fitness classes in terms of intensity, calorie burn, and sweat equity.

The Evolution of Jazzercise

Once synonymous with pelvic circles and shiny nude tights, Jazzercise never really went away (it is one of seven retro workouts that still get results). It's currently a hundred-million-dollar-per-year company in the rankings on Entrepreneur's Top 50 Franchise list, with more than 8,000 franchises offering 20,000+ classes per week in all 50 states, plus 30 other countries.

The official Jazzercise Instagram page is in the same fitspo-esque vein as, say, your favorite hot yoga or barre class: quippy inspirational memes ("Instructors who say 'last one' are the reason I have trust issues"); women with cut shoulders; cute workout gear (Jazzercise has its own line); and the requisite photos of salads-in-mason-jars. Jazzercise is even on ClassPass.

But now, the nostalgia-inducing workout is on a mission to let people know that not only is it still here, it's nothing like your mother's Jazzercise.

Shanna Missett Nelson knows this better than anyone else. The 48-year-old is the president of Jazzercise. Her Insta page is filled with posts like a recent one of her beaming in a black "Fearless" tank, promising that it was gray before her 9:30 a.m. class left it drenched with sweat. Nelson's mother, professional jazz dancer Judi Sheppard Missett, founded Jazzercise 48 years ago, when she began offering dance classes in Chicago.

"Back in 1969, there was no fitness industry, so all that women had in terms of exercise were sports or calisthenics," says Nelson. "Women would show up for my mom's class, often because they wanted to lose weight, but they wouldn't return because the classes were too technical."

So Missett made a few tweaks: She turned participants away from the mirror and made the class more about having fun, not technique. Women responded favorably, and class sizes swelled. In 1972, the Missett family moved to Southern California, and women continued to flock to what was for the first time being called Jazzercise, a suggestion made by a class regular. Jazzercise began hiring instructors. Nelson says her mother's company was the first to train them and outfit them with microphones-before SoulCycle, before Tae Bo, before Richard Simmons.

"Some people also think that because we've been around so long, we haven't changed. But in order to stay here, we've had to evolve," says Nelson.

Evidence of that evolution: Whereas Jazzercise used to consist solely of dance aerobics, today it boasts a portfolio of 10 different classes. Every class also integrates strength training in the form of resistance tubes, balls, or weights, helping women boost bone density, muscle mass, and metabolism. The music is modern, too. And it's worth noting that while Jazzercise studios exist, many classes are still offered in churches, schools, and recreational centers.

Do Dance Exercise Classes Work?

Recent research out of the University of Brighton in the U.K. found that dancing burns about 600 calories per hour-about as much as jogging or swimming. (Read: 4 Reasons Not to Dismiss a Dance Cardio Class) The researchers involved in that U.K. report point out that unlike running or swimming, which typically involve moving in one direction at a constant speed, dancing requires multiple types of movements-jumping up and down, hopping side to side-and lots of accelerating and decelerating.

Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., an ACE-certified personal trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast, adds that in an age of high-intensity strength training workouts, people tend to overlook the exercise benefits of dancing. But "dancing uses so many muscles and can keep your heart rate elevated for an extended period of time, both of which are essential for burning calories."

He adds: "Dance formats that keep you moving are a great way to achieve the benefits of cardiorespiratory exercise, and the best part is that you'll be having so much fun you won't even realize you're working out."

The Next Generation of Jazzercise

This year, Jazzercise introduced a global initiative called GirlForce, offering free classes for girls ages 16 to 21 years. It's an effort to boost their self-esteem and introduce them to the healthy high of a good sweat. Missett says that while attending the White House's United State of Women Summit in June of 2016, she was inspired hearing Michelle Obama speak about her Let's Move campaign. "We want to support young women in creating healthy habits," she says. "As a woman who has raised a daughter and now has granddaughters, it's important to me to support the growth and development of strong women in our culture." (Missett's granddaughters-Nelson's daughters-are 15 and 11.)

About 2,000 girls a month have been taking advantage of the free GirlForce offer since January. "It's been incredible," says Kitzi, who is 43. "We're impacting their life trajectory." Not only are they learning to love fitness and achieve different fitness-related goals, but "we have the chance to talk to them about things like nutrition, so they can understand that maybe something like [store-bought pastries] aren't the greatest breakfast option. It's one more way to infuse their lives with positive fitness role modeling."

Comments (5)

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September 9, 2017
I have fond memories of Jazzercise as a kid - even though I was scrawny, I thought it was so fun, and everyone was doing it! Who knew it would be the start of a lifetime of fitness?
August 18, 2017
I was so happy to see an article that described Jazzercise so well. I credit my teaching Jazzercise for 37 years as the reason for a rapid recovery from breast surgery & radiation therapy. I was back to teaching 2 1/2 weeks after surgery & did not miss a day during radiation therapy. Jazzercise gives me energy & the positive philosophy of the company encourages me every day. I am passionate about sharing all of the benefits of this fitness program with others. Thanks for such a well written article. Elizabeth Eaves
August 17, 2017
Loved this great article about Jazzercise! I was a customer for about eight years before certifying to become an instructor and have seen the evolution as the company continues to adapt to customer needs and wants. Keeps things lively and exciting and ever new! Thanks for this well-researched and well written article!
August 17, 2017
Thanks for the great article about Jazzercise! I've been an instructor for over 7 years, and now own a Jazzercise Center. I've become passionate about women's health...thanks for the positive article about our fantastic program!